Students not ready for maths at third level

A review of the controversial Project Maths curriculum is to examine how it affects student performance on third-level courses with a high maths content.

There is already some evidence to suggest the revised curriculum has seen students less prepared than previously for the maths elements of college studies in science and technology.

The National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA) says it is still early to fully evaluate the reform’s impact on students’ experiences at third level. However, it wants to begin analysing a number of outcomes, as this year’s Leaving Certificate students will be the first group of school leavers to have experienced the full Project Maths curriculum through their entire second-level education.

The course aims to give students a better ability to apply maths to problem-solving, as well as the main basic concepts. It was introduced on a phased basis to a small number of pilot schools from 2008, but it was a number of years before it was taught in all 730 second-level schools.

The new course has been cited as a factor in the-much increased uptake of higher level maths among Leaving Cert students, although the main reason is the awarding of 25 bonus college-entry points for anyone who passes the honours exam since 2012.

Among the requirements of the study for the NCCA will be to analyse how trends in undergraduate students’ performance can be attributed to Project Maths.

The question of students’ gender and social background are also to be considered by the research, due to begin next month. The researchers are also expected to consider how any changes to maths teaching and content at third level has been influenced by the new second-level curriculum. This may include an examination of how well second-level maths prepares students for existing college courses.

College students’ attitudes to maths and how it relates to anxiety and performance are also to be analysed.

The NCCA is also eager to find out about the use supports provided to third-level students who have problems with maths and other relevant studies, particularly whether there is any difference in uptake between males and females.

The particular areas of maths in which difficulties are experienced, and whether any changes to these are linked to Project Maths, will also be considered. Among criticisms lecturers has been that it it would have been better to upgrade teacher training than what some perceive as a lowering of standards in its content.

Another study questioned the dropping of topics, mainly at Leaving Certificate level, such as vectors, matrices and aspects of calculus. Analysis of the maths competence of students beginning science and technology degrees at University of Limerick in 2013, with an emphasis on algebra, was significantly below that of those a decade earlier.

However, that study last year pointed more to the way algebra is being taught rather than the content of the Project Maths. Two previous reports for NCCA found that students did poorly in algebra and functions at both Junior Certificate and Leaving Certificate.

While students perform quite well on tasks requiring lower-level skills, like reading and handling data from tables and diagrams, the 2013 research showed that they struggle with creating, using and interpreting real-world situations and using mathematical reasoning.

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